Movie review: Barbie offers an existential crisis in a pretty pink package

Movie review: Barbie

Greta Gerwig strips Barbie down to bare plastic to expose her corporate stamp, and the industrial mold that stubbornly defines the female experience.

Barbie

4/5

Starring: Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, Issa Rae, America Ferrera, Simu Liu, Kate McKinnon

Directed by: Greta Gerwig

Written by: Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig

Running time: 1 hr 54 mins

Rating: PG-13

In theatres July 21, 2023

Now available on VOD

By Katherine Monk

Finding the warm, fleshy heart inside a Barbie doll is — on the surface — a futile task. Crafted from hard plastic in impossible proportions and endowed with a fixed, empty stare, Barbie was born to be a plaything for little girls in an era that objectified all things feminine.

The child of a chemical revolution that perfected long hydrocarbons, and their ability to retain a fixed, rigid form, Barbie is both a signpost of postwar industrial progress as well as a stubborn symbol of sexist expectation.

In short, she’s the perfect vessel for dissecting the endlessly contradictory feminine experience in the twenty-first century, and thanks to a crafty treatment from writer-director Greta Gerwig, the much ballyhooed Barbie feature film delivers on three very important fronts.

First, it offers a critique of Barbie’s origins and the prevailing attitudes toward women in 1959, the year of her birth. Second, it celebrates womanhood and the concept of female agency. Third, it remains true to the foundational concept of being a toy by actually playing with all the grown-up issues swirling through the pastel scenery.

Front and centre in this clever satire is the notion of the “patriarchy.” Though the word isn’t mentioned in the first act, it’s announced through the complete absence of masculinity in Barbieland.

… Barbie is the perfect vessel for dissecting the endlessly contradictory feminine experience in the twenty-first century, and thanks to a crafty treatment from writer-director Greta Gerwig, the much ballyhooed Barbie feature film delivers on three very important fronts.

A flood of fuchsia, injected plastics and disposable fashion, Barbieland is where our “stereotypical Barbie” (Margot Robbie) calls home. Surrounded by her Barbie friends, most of whom are also called Barbie, waking up in Barbieland is a blissful repetition of Barbie ritual: brushing hair, changing clothes, driving pink car, changing clothes, meeting Ken, and going to girl parties that feature choreography and matching dance costumes.

In the beginning, stereotypical Barbie is blissful because life is one long predictable party with a constant supply of cool clothes. There is no conflict in her see-through cul-de-sac because women rule Barbieland.

Every position of power features a different Barbie in a different outfit, and because their powerful positions were stamped right on the package — i.e. “President Barbie” or “Commercial Pilot Barbie” or “Chemical Nobel laureate Barbie” — there is no patriarchal threat of Barbie being reduced to a secondary position to keep all the Kens happy.  In fact, in Barbieland, Ken is just an afterthought, a convenient accessory to affirm social optics about popularity, sexuality and gender roles.

Ken doesn’t seem to mind his lack of purpose or genuine meaning. Played with platinum blonde bimbo vacancy by Ryan Gosling, the primary Ken in this story is quite content to be at the beach, where he can show off for Barbie and garner her attention.

Ken needs her attention to find meaning, but Barbie is becoming distracted by new, unsettling thoughts. She’s got an existential itch. She thinks about death, flirts with a desire for isolation and begins to wonder if there’s something more beyond the folding plastic walls and collapsible closets of Barbieland.

So begins Barbie’s big adventure into the real world, where gender expectations are the complete opposite of the feminist Utopia she called home. The contrast is where director Gerwig and co-writer Noah Baumbach find most of the comic moments. They lambaste the man world by using Barbie as the full-length mirror to society, showing us how absurd her expectations about full equality and female agency really are.

The chasm between our world and Barbie’s is so wide, it’s laughable — which is nothing short of tragic. Indeed, sitting right beneath the shiny surface of this sparkling comedy is a dark thread of pathos that doesn’t really fit into the pastel palette.

Our brave Barbie heroine becomes depressed, suffers and existential crisis and contemplates a kind of intellectual suicide, represented by a box with a transparent plastic window, where she can be brainwashed and twist-tied into place for a new consumer to purchase and play with.

Meanwhile, Ken discovers the “patriarchy” rules the real world and brings chauvinism back to Barbieland, forcing all the Barbies to “beer” the Kens while giggling in sexually suggestive clothing. More painful still, all the Kens force all the Barbies to listen to an overly sincere rendition of Matchbox Twenty’s “I Want to Push You Around” around the faux campfire.

The chasm between our world and Barbie’s is so wide, it’s laughable — which is nothing short of tragic. Indeed, sitting right beneath the shiny surface of this sparkling comedy is a dark thread of pathos that doesn’t really fit into the pastel palette.

The sharpest moments are the most subtle, but also the most cutting, such as a brief moment that slices to the sexist bone of mainstream film criticism via a self-satisfied discussion of Robert Evans.

These clever details bring depth and character to a story that could have been too binary, too gimmicky, and too generically fairy-tale to make a deep impression. After all, this Barbie is a cross between The Little Mermaid and Pinocchio, a toy who wants to be more than an object, a female creature who craves a human form but must wrestle with a deeply sexist reality where women are never truly free.

We immediately understand the dual structure, so we never really doubt what will happen. The suspense, and the pleasure, comes down to performance value, and how well Robbie and Gosling sell the emotional component of the awakening. We have to care about these plastic characters and invest our own stories in them for the movie, and the premise, to work.

To Robbie and Gosling’s credit, I did find myself caring for Barbie and Ken’s psychological health, even more than I cared about the witty references to merchandizing and feminist history lessons. Perhaps because Robbie and Gosling are two actors who understand the unique position of being physically flawless, they find something undeniably authentic amidst the plastic scenery.

Combined with Kate McKinnon’s “weird Barbie” — who, quite accurately, always seems to be doing the splits — Gerwig creates a world where even oddballs have a place, and where grown-ups may not have all the answers.

The grand climax is a rhetorical coup de force delivered by America Ferrera. Playing a real mom who accidentally pulled Barbie into the real world and prompted her emotional paralysis, Ferrera tells Barbie that being a woman is a condition of perpetual cognitive dissonance. You’re always forced to flatter, feed and concede to men — without paying any attention to your own needs.

It’s a great speech. To be sure, Greta Gerwig’s film is steeped in commendable messages about the importance of being who you really are — regardless of gender. The only sad part of this giddy ride how that great speech doesn’t feel dated. After 60 years of being a cherished companion to little girls around the world, Barbie’s biggest challenge remains the same: Women are packaged for public consumption: pretty things to look at, not lead.

 

 

@katherinemonk

-30-

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Summary

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Greta Gerwig lovingly sends-up the generational icon without pandering to cliche or commercial gloss. The film is steeped in commendable messages about the importance of being who you really are — regardless of gender. The only sad part of this giddy ride how current it remains. After 60 years of being a cherished companion to little girls around the world, Barbie’s biggest challenge remains the same: Women are packaged for public consumption: pretty things to look at, not lead. - Katherine Monk

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